Friday, April 27, 2007

Hats Off To Rescue Workers

All of us are well aware of what happened on 9-11-01, but I wonder how many people are aware that those EMS workers and other first responders are now suffering from all sorts of lung diseases. On 9-11 each of those first responders and then others went to help our friends and loved ones in the midst of that horrible act of terror. Now they are the next line of victims. I have no idea how many people will have died or been permanently injured as a result of those terrorist acts but I know it will be many more than died on that day.
The reason I wanted to write about this is that these Emergency Responders are having trouble paying for all of the health care that they need as a result of their work. It's not like these are the best paid people in the world who could afford it either. Many of them were volunteers receiving no pay and only recently I learned that a beginning EMS worker in Texas makes about $8.00 per hour. Imagine putting your life on the line for $8.oo per hour or for free.
Why do they do it? They do it because they care. They care about others. They care that people are suffering and they want to do something to alleviate that suffering. We hear a lot of talk about pay these days. I don't know anyone who makes enough money. I can't do anything about the pay that EMS workers, Fire Fighters, or Police Persons make, but I can pray for each of them. I can tip my hat to them. I applaud them.
So today, I call on each of my friends, to pray today for an emergency responder by name. I thank God for them and I pray God's blessings on them and their families. Grace and peace, Allen

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lots of Questions

Wow, what a week! Just when we thought things might be getting better in race relations, our world was turned upside down again when Mr. Cho decided for whatever reason to go on a killing rampage. And right now the news media is asking all of the questions that go through our minds: Why was he allowed to be among people? Why wasn't the school more attentive? Why did it take an hour to notify the rest of the school? How could he have gotten those guns so easily? What can we do to stop these kinds of things?
These questions and many others are hard questions. There are no really easy answers. The way they are asked, sort of demands that someone must be responsible. Then we hear that the tragic Mr. Cho was bullied as a child and we wonder how much that played a part in his decision. Obviously there are some truths in all of the answers and then even more questions. It is interesting that I haven't heard the usual one, how could God allow this to happen? I am sure some folks are asking that question. It too is a legitimate one. And like the others, there isn't an easy answer.
I want to ask another question and it should also be on all our minds: Can we forgive Mr. Cho or even should we? Wow, that's also loaded. Well, as a pastor, I know I am supposed to say that we should forgive him. And as a Christian, I do agree that those who are the survivors and family members should also work on forgiving him. After all, that is what Jesus calls us to do and that he encouraged us to do. But as a human being, I know deep in my heart, how difficult that would be.
Forgiveness isn't something that should be done easily. In most cases, forgiveness can come only when the offender makes some kind of amends, even if it is only asking for forgiveness. But even in the asking we expect the person to offer real, heartfelt remorse. Last week, Don Imus offered his apology and asked for forgiveness for hurting the ladies of the Rutgers Basketball Team. His request seemed heartfelt and sincere. But Mr. Cho is dead and his deeds were so much more horrendous.
I can't tackle all of the aspects of forgiveness in one column. I mainly want to say that forgiveness is about letting go. Letting go of the anger and the hatred. Forgiveness is not about rebuilding a relationship but about your own personal healing. If the victims of these horrible crimes focus the rest of their lives on hating Mr. Cho, they will become bitter and will harm themselves. If they can focus on the goodness of their loved ones and the good memories they have of them, then they can be healed through this terrible experience.
I am not suggesting that this would be an easy thing to do or a quick thing to do. I am only suggesting that forgiveness is about healing. God has asked us all to forgive even as we ask for forgiveness. So I invite you to join me in praying for these victims of this horrible event. And I also ask that you pray for Mr. Cho's family as they also grieve what their son did and his death too. Let us pray for healing in even the worst of events.
Would you like to talk about it? come on by the church. We meet every week and would love to talk with you about the importance of forgiveness. Allen

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What language is appropriate?

It has been a whirlwind week for players on the Rutgers team and for talk show host Don Imus. By now, most of us are aware of Mr. Imus' insensitive remarks about the ladies on the Rutgers team. I have been interested in all of the media hype and as well the comments by the team and others who were harmed by his thoughtless remarks. I am not sure what should happen to Mr. Imus, but Mr. Imus is not the problem. Mr. Imus is only a symptom of the problem in our country.

For along time, we have worked hard to recognize that all persons are equals before God and should be recognized as such in our communities. However, Mr. Imus' remarks which were so quickly said reminds us all that there is still much work to do to overcome racism and other "isms" in our nation and our world.

My prayer is that this incident serve as a reminder to us all that we should be careful what we say to and about others. Apparently, we need to teach many adults what we strive to teach in the Jr. High department in church: that it is never appropriate to call people names. It is never appropriate to make suggestive comments about someone or to make fun of other people. For thirty years or so, according to Mr. Imus, he has made his living in a comedy act that makes fun of all sorts of persons. Indeed, his show has been full of expletives and suggestive remarks about politicians, news reporters and others to the point that I have wondered before when someone was going to call him to task for it.

Should Mr. Imus be forgiven? Well, I would think that he should be. He has apologized and asked for forgiveness. What happens next is not in my area of expertise. What should happen to him is not as important as what will happen to the rest of us. Will you and I now begin to take notice of our language? Will we start to realize that words do hurt and that we really should listen to our mothers when they said, "think before you speak."

Would you like to talk about it? Why not come to church this Sunday? Everyone is welcome and we would love to meet you. Happy Easter. Allen

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why should be we do about the war?

I always wonder what the title of an article will generate. I can assume that some folks are looking for blogs and articles on the war in Iraq and may respond to this. And I also am sure that no matter what I say here, there will be someone who will disagree, but that makes our nation interesting. So let me begin by saying that I have no answers to that question. I wish I did.

I have been corresponding with a friend of mine who is a Viet Nam veteran and his brother as well as some other friends about the current world situation. Politicians seem to have all of the answers or at least it seems to me that they want everyone to think they are right. Some question whether or not the motives for going to war were pure. I think that is a waste of time. As has been said before, hind sight is usually 20/20.

I don't know why we are in the current situation. I know the answers that Washington gives and I know the answers that come across my desk every day. I suppose to find the answer, we really need to go back about 3,000 years. We are being drawn into an age old conflict and I think we will, unfortunately, remain in that situation for a long time.

So here is what I propose: I think every Christian in America and around the world should do exactly what Jesus taught us to do - Let's spend the next month, praying for our enemies. And no, I am not suggesting that we pray for their destruction as some of the Psalmist have suggested.

Jesus never was very clear about what he meant when he said to pray for our enemies except that to pray for them and do good to them, would be like heaping coals of fire upon their heads. I am not sure all that Jesus meant but I suspect he did not mean for us to actually heap coals of fire. Rather, he meant for us to take a different approach to being persecuted. He chose the hardest path of all and asks us to do the same.

There are some things that Jesus said that I am not sure I like and much that he said that I still don't understand - like praying for our enemies. So here goes. "Lord, you asked each of us to do as you did. You asked us to pray for and extend love to our enemies. I don't know what that means. So, I am praying that your Holy Spirit will intervene on my behalf and for the sake of all of your people. Give our enemies and our own leaders, the will and the ability to find a creative, non-violent plan to resolve our differences. I pray that all troops will get to be home soon and that the killing will stop everywhere. I offer this prayer in the spirit of Jesus. Amen"

Okay, some of you will say that I am naive and if I am then so be it. I just want to follow Jesus and I think that means the path is going to be very rocky. Right now, it is terrible. Well, that's my thought, what's yours? Allen

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Servant Leadership?

I have been talking for a few weeks on some aspects of what it takes to be a good leader. I know the topics may have seemed a bit strange but still, being a leader isn’t always about the glory or about the headlines. Being a really good leader involves so many things other than that. Last week, we talked for a while about the need to be transformed and how we as a congregation are a catalyst for the transformation of the world. We are the ones God has called to lead the way to a new creation.

In connection with leadership, I have been thinking about Jesus. I do occasionally think about him, after all, he is the one I work for. Jesus is our leader – my leader – and as I thought about him, I realized that leadership isn’t always a lot of fun. Looking at this prophecy about Jesus and then realizing that we are coming up on Easter week, we must realize that being a leader – being THE leader is sort of like putting a red and white target on your back and singing the leadership theme song: “Hit me with your best shot!”

Isaiah talks of the suffering servant leader. It describes him as not being very good looking but as one who takes on himself the sins of the world and gives himself so that the rest of us can have a better life.

A suffering servant? The passage in Isaiah 52 and 53 is usually reserved for Advent but perhaps it deserves a fresh look since we are so close to Easter.

I have been wondering what most people in the world think about when they hear the church talk about Jesus as the suffering servant. What image does that convey? The first one that comes to my mind is that of victim.

Jesus was a victim of the power struggle that was going on in Palestine. Jesus was the victim of the struggle between the religious leaders and the political leaders. Jesus was the victim of the greed and hubris of the religious leadership of his day. Jesus was the victim of those who were too cowardly to stand with him and for him – those who ran away at the first sign of trouble.

So what is the advantage of being a servant-leader? Right now we are in the beginning of our eight-year election process for president. And one of the characteristics that many people look for in a candidate is this: do they look presidential? Do they look like they are in-charge? Do they look powerful and sure of themselves? Do these candidates possess the characteristics of leadership that we need to guide us out of the distress we have gotten ourselves into? That’s what being presidential seems to mean.

I don’t think Jesus could have been elected president. He didn’t look very presidential. He didn’t come across as one who is in charge. No, Jesus is seen as a victim; a poor peasant teacher who traveled around on foot and was even seen washing the feet of his followers.

Leadership is about serving. Leadership is about transforming our minds to see things differently so that we can provide salvation to all who hear the good news we have to share. According to the prophesy, Jesus wasn’t anything much to look at. He wasn’t beautiful by the world’s standards. He wasn’t particularly powerful. He expected no one to bow and grovel at his feet – he even corrected those who referred to him as good. There was no pretense in the man. He barked no orders and carried no sword. And yet, people came to hear him, to see him, to learn from him by the thousands.

He was not the kind of leader who looked presidential or who would command a great army because of his stature. Yet, people followed him and people have died for him.

We have our image of what it takes to be a leader. We want our leaders to be, well, - presidential.

As I was thinking about leadership and Jesus, I came across the following quote from an article in the Methodist Reporter. This person was writing about the problems in the church and discussing the decline in membership that the church as a whole has been experiencing.

Here is what he said that got my attention: “we are losing members because we practice a lukewarm faith: our preachers preach a lukewarm gospel and our lay people practice a lukewarm discipleship.”

How do you react to a statement like that? In a recent pastors meeting, this statement got the dander up of most of the pastors in the room. None of us saw our church, our message or our members as being lukewarm.

What about you? Do you think of the church as lukewarm? So we discussed worship and sermons and other things. We discussed the fact that people want excitement in worship and courageous leadership in the church. Ah, there is that word leadership again.

What do you want in a leader? What do you think the world is really looking for in a leader?

To those questions, the church answers that our leader is a suffering servant. Our leader went to a cross and died. Our leader fed thousands and stooped to take care of a bleeding woman and wash the feet of his dusty, dirty followers. Our leader even said that we should also do as he did.

I’m not sure how you feel about someone calling your church lukewarm? When I think about Jesus and the price that was paid for this church, I get upset. I get passionate about telling the story of Jesus and I have given my life to encourage you to do the same.

The world is looking for a church that is a leader. The world is looking for a church that will go the extra mile and stoop down to wash its feet. The world is looking for a savior who isn’t afraid to get in the trenches with them.

But the world is also looking for a leader who makes bold and brash moves to bring people into God’s presence. Do you think of Jesus only as a victim – a suffering person who looks pitiful and weak? Or do you see the Jesus who marched into the temple with a whip in his hand and rage in his eyes to cast out those who made a mockery of his father’s house? Do you see the weakling man who spent time with the sick and the afflicted, or do you see a courageous man who was not afraid to touch a leper and walked up to a local politician to invite himself to dinner?

Yes, we present to the world a suffering servant. We present to the world a savior who faced death along with the rest of us and who walked into that death confident that he was going to overcome it.

There is a lot of talk in different church circles about how to present Jesus to men. It is a sad fact that only about 40% of men are active in any church. So now, there are “man-churches” springing up around the country. Churches who say they aren’t church. Churches who say they are tired of the feminine side of Jesus – that we sing too much and we hold hands too much. They are looking for a macho Jesus. They want to see the He-man Jesus – the one who kicks over tables and casts out demons.

Okay, there is that Jesus. But he is also the man who loved the unlovable and who walked willingly to his own death on a cross.

What kind of leader do you want? What kind of savior are you looking for? I’m sure the church is going to see changes made in the way we present the gospel in the next few years. We have seen changes before – changes are important to help us reach new generations.

What doesn’t change is this – we still offer to the world a brave, leader who suffered with us and who still calls us to travel with him to a lost and dying world.

What Jesus wants, it seems to me, is for men and women to be willing to follow him down the same road. Are you willing to go where he went? Are you willing to go where he sends you? The road may be rough and there may be suffering along the way.

But if you go- if you follow – if you lead and spread the gospel, the a world can be transformed again into what God wants it to be. Want to talk about it some more? Then come on by next Sunday and let's see what God would want. Allen

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Grace Beyond the Rules

One of the songs we sang this morning goes, “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear…” I like that song, mainly because it reminds me that Jesus was a terrific storyteller. Most of his sermons were probably about 10 minutes long and consisted of one or more stories that held people’s attention but always – always drove home an important point from God.

But he did more than just tell stories; his life itself was a story – the story - filled with emotion, conviction, and hope. Recently I have conducted several funeral services and at each of those, we usually read some of the information found in the Obituary. That column in the newspaper that some of you look at each day just to see if your name is written there. You know it is going to be a good day, if you are not listed.

An obituary is an interesting bit of journalism. I am not sure who came up with the idea of writing a death notice in the newspaper but it has been going on for a long time. Regardless of its origin, obituaries always contain some of the same information. They contain the name, age, date of birth and date of death. They usually list the towns where a person lived and some information about their occupation and hobbies. The end is usually saved for mentioning the surviving family members.

The person’s home address is no longer mentioned in most newspapers because family members have been known to come home from the cemetery and find that their home had been burglarized.

But the obituary notice is amazingly short on real facts about a person’s life. It is sort of like looking at a gravestone with the name and dates of birth and death on them with no further information. They just don’t tell us everything about that person’s life.

What we do in the funeral service is to take a few moments to remember the activities and important events in someone’s life so that we can begin the healing process. In short, what we do is tell the stories of someone’s life rather than just the facts. And what makes those stories healing to us is that by tying them together, we get a better picture of who that person was and why that person should be remembered.

While I was in Tennessee, I was once asked by a local funeral home to come to the cemetery to conduct a graveside service for an elderly man in our community. His nearest relative was a nephew living in Florida. When I arrived at the cemetery, the only people present besides myself was the funeral director and the gravedigger. No relative had come to say good-bye to this man. And I only knew his name, age, and information from the obituary. From my experience that was the saddest funeral that I have ever attended, much less conducted. There was no story to tell about this man. No comfort, no help but from the Bible and a short prayer.

That is the problem with reality television. I never watch those things like Big Brother, because they at not stories about people’s lives, they are only a chronicle, an observation. They are a neutral, meaningless, summary of information about people without any sense or purpose.

Jesus makes meaningful sense of life’s experiences and as he does so, gives us hope for tomorrow. “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear…”

The story we read this morning is one of those favorite stories. As the first lines were read, I am sure that most of us in the room immediately knew what was coming next – and yet, I never tire of hearing this story. Maybe you like it too.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best-known stories in Christianity … and indeed in the history of literature. It is so easy for us to identify with any of the three main characters, and to identify with the eternal internal struggle of the family.

Our heart goes out to the prodigal younger son, because we have all been young, foolhardy, selfish, impatient, and made a total wreck of our lives. Our heart goes out to the father, because we have all failed to be the parent we want to be, watched helplessly as our children hurt themselves, yearned desperately for their return, and worked tirelessly for the well-being of the whole family. And our heart goes out to the older son, because we have all felt unappreciated for our dedication, deserving of more than that which we have received, and jealous of the success of others.

With whom do you identify right now? With whom will you identify several years from now? Prodigal children grow up to be older brothers … and older brothers grow up to be worried fathers … and even worried fathers are tempted to chuck it all, divorce their wives, and run off to Vegas where they will squander their living and eventually end up in a pig sty. And yes, the same thing can be said of younger prodigal sisters, older sisters who stay at home to take care of the family, and their mothers.

It would be nice if Jesus also finished this story about how to solve these family problems, but he doesn’t. The story ends with no resolution. We don’t know if the younger son ever really grew up or even if the older brother finally went into the party and forgave his brother and his father.

The resolution of the pain in this family is going to require more than therapy, or some coaching on basic ethical behavior, or three people learning to suck it up and behave like adults for a change. I am not even sure if Dr. Phil could intervene here for a long-term solution. In this love triangle, the resolution literally requires a miracle.

What makes this story so powerful in our lives is that it is also our story. Somebody in the story that Jesus tells is morally, ethically, even literally “dead” … and becomes morally, ethically, and even literally “alive” again. Somebody else is relationally, emotionally, and even literally dying … and becomes relationally, emotionally, and literally hopeful again. Somebody else is selfishly, angrily, resentfully about to die … and is rescued for compassion, forgiveness, and love just on the brink of losing it forever. So it’s no wonder that they kill the fatted calf and rejoice. (easum/bandy.com)

Of course, this is a parable about God and the two basic kinds of people who make up God’s family. Those who are strangers to grace and have either walked away from the community of faith or never been a part of it, and there are strangers to grace who have remained involved in the community of faith out of habit or duty or something else.

This is a story about family squabbles and about broken relationships but it is mostly a story about forgiveness. I think I have mentioned to you before that forgiveness is probably the hardest concept within our faith that we have to deal with. We want forgiveness for ourselves but we are not sure if we want to extend it to someone else unless they demonstrate they are “truly sorry for their sins.”

A teacher once told each of her students to bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes to school. For every person they refuse to forgive in their life's experience, they chose a potato, wrote on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag. Some of their bags were quite heavy.

They were then told to carry this bag with them everywhere for one week, putting it beside their bed at night, on the car seat when driving, next to their desk at work.

The hassle of lugging this around with them made it clear what a weight they were carrying spiritually, and how they had to pay attention to it all the time to not forget and keep leaving it in embarrassing places. Naturally, the condition of the potatoes deteriorated to a nasty smelly slime. This was a great metaphor for the price we pay for keeping our pain and heavy negativity! Too often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, and it clearly is for ourselves! (author unknown)

But why is forgiveness so hard? After all, forgiveness is what separates us from the animals around us. The fact is that to preach forgiveness is easy but living forgiveness is what is hard. To forgive is to embrace humility.

Imagine that you are that son wasting away in a pigsty and wondering what in the world you have gotten yourself into. There you are in the midst of what you have done to yourself and knowing that you have hurt your family in so many ways. What do you do? How do you go on?

Of course, many people find themselves in this position and because they are so proud, would never admit that they had done anything wrong at all. So they just stay where they are and wallow in their pain – too proud to ask forgiveness and too proud to forgive themselves.

Then there is the older brother in this story. I can imagine him working every day alongside his Dad – doing whatever he could to make life easier for his father and every day seeing the pain in his father’s eyes. Year after year, hearing his father call out for the son that had left home – the anger and hatred for his brother growing day after day.

Then one day that brat of a little brother comes home and the old man throws a great party – fatted calf, jewelry and friends over for the celebration. And what does Dad ask the older brother to do? Come on in and join the party – let’s all forgive your brother – he was lost and is found – he was dead and is now alive again!

I imagine the amount of pride that the older brother would have to swallow in order to forgive that person who had caused Dad so much pain.

And of course, the main character in this story is the dignified father. The man who was a leading citizen – everyone knew what had happened. And every one expected the old man to punish this wayward son – but what happened? This dignified, well respected citizen of the community does the most unexpected thing of all – he opens up the kitchen door and runs – RUNS – down the road to meet his son and throws the biggest party ever on that ranch.

How hard is it for you to forgive someone this morning? Or maybe I should ask how hard is it for you to ask for forgiveness for something you have done?

Something is needed to bring this family together again – something tangible, touchable, a miracle. If only we could find a fatted calf to slay in whose body and blood we might all be reunited – one who could stand in absolute identity with God and with each of us as well. A miracle that could bring us all together again.

Of course, we have such a miracle. And it is pictured in the event we are about to do in a few moments. For in a few moments we are going to re-enact an event, which reminds us that God swallowed his pride- came and walked among us and then even died for us. But the event does not stop there – it also reminds us that there is hope for all who meet him here.

This morning I want to say to you that if you want to be a leader in the world, then do what the world does not expect – swallow your pride – get rid of it and come to the table. God has prepared for you – God has forgiven you – and God wants you to forgive too.

Our rules for living may say to us that we need justice – God says let’s break the rules and give grace and forgiveness even to those who don’t deserve it.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Leadership

What does it mean to be a leader? I suppose that first it means the leader is a person who leads others on some journey. That is true, but why would people want to follow a leader except that the leader has or knows something that they do not know. A leader has knowledge and a leader must know the way, or at least convince some folks that he knows the way.

A fishing guide is a leader and he must be a person who knows how to fish and where to fish. A coach is a leader who must know football and how to teach football. It helps if the coach has been a successful player but it isn’t really necessary. A good teacher must know the subject and be able to transmit the information into the student in such a way that the student can use that knowledge and demonstrate that it is now learned. That is the reason for these tests that the students have been taking this week. Demonstrating their level of learning.

But what about the average Christian? Are we leaders in some way? The church seems to push all of us to be evangelists – teachers of The Way so that others can become followers. Our church says that our reason for being – our focus – our life is all about making disciples of Jesus Christ by sharing God’s grace and love. It’s a great mission statement but it doesn’t mean anything at all if we don’t live that mission in our daily lives. We are called upon by the church to be leaders of the faith in this community and in the world.

It is not just the pastor who needs to follow the rules – it is all of us, who act together in the same manner who will lead the community to know who this Jesus is that we are talking about each week.

Do you want to be a faithful follower of Jesus – a spiritual leader in the community? Do you want to be a leader and not a follower? Do you want to live the real authentic Christian life?

Listen, for the answer isn’t all that easy. There are two basic principles for the truly authentic spiritual, Christian, life.

1. the first is to be wholly and completely dedicated to the Lord: to spend all of your energy – the time that you have – on God and what God expects.

2. the second is to use the clarity about God’s expectations as a standard of accountability against which you measure your own lifestyle and your relationships and your career.

You see the spiritual life – the life of credibility – the life of a leader is not really a matter of rules or liturgies or sacrifices or even obligations. The life of a truly credible leader is one that focuses on God and God’s desires for our lives. And the more we surrender to God, and align ourselves with God’s purposes, the more we free ourselves from the clutches of desire and temptation from the world.

I didn’t say it was easy. Jesus didn’t say it was easy either. But that is the place we need to start each day – in prayer – asking Jesus to help us walk with him. Finally, I think that being a leader is a matter of character. And our character is who we are when no one is looking. Have a great week, come and see us next Sunday and let's talk some about the truly authentic spiritual life.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Surgery

Well, there is no sermon material for this week because I have been in quite a different position this week. I have been in the hospital and had some surgery. The surgery was to correct a condition that I have had for several years, so I should soon begin to be in better health than before. But that is not the subject of my thoughts this morning.

I am sure that there are plenty of folks who want to know the "gory" details, so to speak, but they really aren't important. What I experienced though was important to me. What I have experienced was so much care and concern from people whom I never met before and probably will never meet again.

This morning, I saw Diane Sawyer on television as she was accosted in Iran by people shouting "death to America," only to be kissed on the cheek by a woman from the crowd. In a strange place, she experienced people who hated her culture but not her. As I watched her, I thought about my experience with strangers. I gave my body over to them to care for. I trusted them to do their jobs well so that I could have improved health. I don't know anything at all about the people who cared for me. There were people from all backgrounds and except for my friends and my doctor, I don't know the religion of any of those folks at all. Yet, every one of them took care of me as if I were their father, brother, friend.

My thoughts were that we can all get along, if we would see others as individuals who need friends and help. The problem is that our political ideals and policies get in the way. Now this isn't a blog against any governmental position, but one to say that our positions do count. Our ideas and our policies affect real people in the world where they live.

I am grateful that there are folks who didn't care if I was a Methodist or what I was at all. They only cared that I was a person who needed their help. I am also grateful to be surrounded by a wife who loves me and by friends and church members who care so very much too. I look forward to getting back to work and leading the church again as we try to learn how to care for individuals regardless of where they come from. As Jesus taught us, the rules we have and the teachings we have received from God are for us to help each other become better. God does love us and loves others.

Come by sometime, let's talk about it. Allen

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mission Trip

Have you ever tried to recruit someone for a difficult job? For the past six years, we have been recruiting for Mission trips every spring. We begin in December by announcing when we are going to the first training event and then begin planning our fund-raising opportunities. Our congregation, has been incredible in their support for the youth and adults who go.

And every year, when we return, several folks tell me that they want to go on a mission trip some day. Then in the spring, I get calls from folks telling me that I need to talk to so and so because if I push a little, then they might go on a trip. But I never make that call. I never try to convince someone to go on a Mission Trip.

Every year, I make the same appeal for adults and youth to pay attention to the dates if you want to go – if you are led to go – if it is your turn to go, so that you don’t miss any of the important paperwork dates or the training event dates, or the fund-raising dates. What I want you to realize if you ever want to go on a Mission Trip is that this requires a great commitment.

Mission trips aren’t some vacation that we can take at the last minute if there is nothing else to do. No, Mission Trips are those events that you need to feel led by God to do, so that you can join in the planning. Numbers of people at each Center and on each work team need to be calculated in the early spring, so that we know how much money to count on and how many jobs we can accomplish.

And once you make that commitment, there cannot be any other business done during the week. During that week, each person needs to focus on the work at hand and not be trying to take care of business at home, or keeping up with your social life. That is why we discourage cell phones on the trip because they are an encouragement to let your mind wander and working with power equipment; well, that just isn’t the safe thing to do.

So here is my recruiting speech. If you feel led to go on one of our summer mission trips or on the adult trip that the District is planning in March, then carefully consider the cost and make your plans now. It may well be some of the most rewarding hard work you have ever done. It will be hot. There will be long hours. You will have to sleep on a cot and you will probably gain weight because the cooks are wonderful. There will be worship every night and devotionals to do during the day. And you will get to work with some of the most terrific youth that you could ever imagine knowing.

Sound good? I hope so, but I sort of feel like the disciples listening to Jesus. Do you remember his recruiting speech? It is found in Luke and it goes like this:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another, he said, “Follow me.” But the man said, Lord, first let me go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him, Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Another said to him, I will follow you Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home. Jesus said to him, No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

Would you believe that was a pep talk – a recruiting talk? But- but – but – and we begin to think that this Jesus guy is not right in the head. These are hard words, yet – he recruited seventy people to go out and become itinerant healers and evangelists. And when they returned to Jesus, they had wonderful stories to tell of how God had been working through their lives.

Sort of like the stories our folks tell every summer when they return from their mission. Wonderful stories. Stories that bring tears to your eyes and hope for your soul.

Well, what is it that keeps you from going on a mission or from serving God when you feel God calling you? Maybe for some folks the question is this: what is it that keeps you from becoming a Christian in the first place? Perhaps it is that you think serving God is going to be hard? Or perhaps you think that you will have to change something so you can become worthy?

I suppose that the short answer is you are right and you are wrong. It seems to me that over the past several years, the main stream Christian media has made becoming a Christian and serving the Lord too easy a thing for most of us. We have heard that all you have to do is say some magic words and you will be in forever. We have heard that often misquoted passage when bad things happen, “God makes all things work for good” and somehow we have sent the message that it is easy to become a Christian and once your “in” that life will all be good – as good as one could get.

When you read the Bible, you come to understand that that God seemed to be on a perpetual building project with his disciples. Look at those faithful disciples and apostles who get their stories told in the New Testament: Shipwrecks, stonings, suffering, arrest, persecution, illness, run through by the sword, hunger, thirst, sacrifice and loss. In fact, none of the “good” guys in the New Testament seemed to fare very well at all.

It seems that becoming a Christian and a missionary for Jesus means that life is going to change. We all know that change is inevitable but the great anxiety that most of us face is whether or not the change is purposeful or not. Is there a point to change? Is there a point to the difficulties that we face trying to follow Jesus?

The Bible assures us that there is purpose, a point, and a destiny for those who follow Jesus. The prophets, the Apostles, and other followers help us to see it, identify with it and go for it. Their message is both good news and bad news. The good news is that you are in God’s hands. And the bad news is that you are in God’s hands.

No matter how confused you might be about God or your life be assured that God is not confused and knows what he is doing. God can rescue you and reshape you to fit his purposes, no matter how much you have messed up.

I would love to discuss God's plans with you. Why not come by on Sunday and let's see if we can understand together what God wants to do in your life. See you then. Allen

Monday, January 22, 2007

Seeing Isn't Believing

Have you ever wondered why Christians say that they believe in things that they cannot see? We have just finished Christmas and heard much about the Christmas Spirit, whatever that is, and about the birth of the Messiah, the Savior of the World. And yet, no one has ever seen the Christmas Spirit, nor, for that matter, have we seen this Jesus that we are so committed to. We say that Jesus is the Light of the world and he, himself, says that he is the light of the world; but if Jesus is the Light of the world, why is there so much darkness still here?

I suppose anyone can claim to be the light of the world. Anyone can claim to be the Messiah or for that matter, anyone can claim to be God. Hey, there are institutions all over the world full of people who think they are Jesus or Napoleon Bonaparte or somebody they aren't. So why should we believe the words of this teacher from Galilee?

The reason we believe in Jesus is that there were and are proofs to substantiate his claims. In John 9 there is a story of a man born blind.

Why was he born blind? Did he sin? Well, the obvious answer to that is no because he was born that way and had no chance to sin. Well, then, it must have been his parents who sinned – right? But Jesus doesn’t tell us there was any sin involved at all – just a blind man who needed some help. And so he healed him. He brought light into his darkness and then repeats those words, “I am the light of the world.”

Okay, then what the passage means is that Jesus brings sight to the blind. If that is the case, then why are there so many blind people? Why are there so many sick people? If Jesus is the light of the world, then we want to see some results – right? It seems to me that what many people want is to find a formula, not even an easy one, but a formula for making our way through the darkness. The easy answer is to say that Jesus is the light of the world.

I like what Donald Miller says in one of his books, Searching For God knows What: "The Christian faith is not about finding a formula for life. Christianity offers a relational dynamic with God. The essence of Jesus message isn't about a bunch of hoops we must jump through to get saved nor was it a series of ideas we had to agree with. Rather, it is an invitation to know God."

When we say we believe in something we cannot see, it is because we believe in a person whose life has changed our lives. We believe in Jesus because those who follow him are people who have also been helped to find their way out of darkness.

As Phyllis Wolk said, "The outer darkness of our world can be so heavy, so oppressive. But sometimes all it takes to lift that darkness is an invitation.

In the 1994 movie, The Santa Claus, Scott Calvin finds himself suddenly at the North Pole. His comment to Judy the Elf, is "I see it but I don't believe it." To which Judy replies, "Santa, seeing isn't believing, believing is seeing."

I know you can't see Jesus, but you can see those who know him and perhaps through believing, you can come to see also. Are you in darkness? The light is here, waiting for you.

If you would like to talk about your relationship or lack thereof, with God, then come on by on Sunday. I would love to get to know you and talk about it. You won't find any easy formulas for finding light, but I hope you will get to know some folks who have light enough to share. Peace, Allen

Monday, January 15, 2007

What's the point of church?

What is your experience with Jesus? I know that is a loaded question, but it is an important one, at least, I think it is. I ask it because as 2007 gets rolling, the news media is often heard telling the world about what different religious faiths believe. They will tell you about Islam or Judaism or about Christianity, as if the world doesn't know anything.

I suspect that almost everyone in this nation, at least, has some preconceived idea of what Christianity is. Perhaps we also have our ideas of what other religions are about too. But where do they get those ideas? Did you have an experience with Christians somewhere that colored your thinking about what the faith is about? Was it a good or a not-so-good experience? Perhaps you read some books on faith or you have heard sound-bytes on the television and determined that you knew everything there was to know.

So when you get invited to any number of churches, mine included, you might think that you already know who we are and what we are about. You might think that we are here to tell you how to live your life. Or you might think that we are going to spend our time telling you how bad you are. (I always have to laugh inside at preachers who think they know how bad I am.) I determined a long time ago that there isn't anything I can guess or say that you don't already know. I suspect most people already know if they have messed up their life or not.

What I hope you hear when you come to church, especially at China Spring, is that there is hope for your life and for all of us. After all, none of us have ever gotten it all together. So as a pastor, I believe that our job is to help you find your way through all of the confusion about what church is to get to the real point of it all. And what is the point? Well, you may laugh at my simplistic answer, but the point of it all is Jesus. Jesus is the point of our life and he is the point of our death.

So, regardless of what you may think we are about at church, what we want to be is a place and a people who help you experience Jesus Christ in such a way that life begins to make sense. We want you to find hope in the midst of your worst dark night.

If you would like to talk about it, come on by. I'd love to discuss it with you.

See you on Sunday! Allen

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Beginnings

I have just completed my first sermon for 2007. One of my New Year's Resolutions is to make my column a truly weekly (not weakly) column for this year. So I am making a new beginning in the blogasphere, if that is the correct way to spell it.

I also just returned from Tennessee where I had some valuable rest time and great visits with my Mom and my children and grandchildren, even getting to be there when my newest grand-child, Chloe JoAnn came into the world. She was 7lbs 2oz and 19 inches long. I only wish I had a picture to share with you. That will come later from my son-in-law.

As I thought about Chloe JoAnn and as I thought about today's message from Genesis, I realized that the whole world is new to her. What challenges will she face? What opportunities will she experience? What will she see in her first years of life as a new person in the world?

For most of us though the road has been long and we have seen and experienced many things already. The question is, what will we do with the opportunities that are before us? What will our world be like this year? What will I do to make it a better place?

Tom Scholz of Boston fame once wrote a song entitled, "Don't Look Back."

Don't look back
a new day is breakin'
it's been too long since I felt this way
I don't mind where I get taken
the road is callin'
today is the day!

So, what opportunities are before you right now? What new things will you accomplish in 2007? As I think about this new year, I realized that we are facing the year with a new congress and a whole new political world is opening up. Is it going to be for the better or for worse? What will happen now that a dictator has been executed?

Perhaps the real question is this, what will the world look like in 2008 because I have been here in 2007?

When God created the world, God began with the creation of light, and from light, life began. As we begin a whole new year together, I pray that you will choose to live in the light that God has already given to you as those who look forward, rather than huddling in the darkness of useless misery.

The story of Christmas is of God's sending a whole new light into the world - the light of God in Jesus Christ. Today, each of us has an opportunity to start over - to begin again in the light of life.